The American Legion baseball state tournament begins in Augusta today amid change that reflects the health and parity within the program throughout Maine.
The five-day event will be staged on McGuire and Morton fields, part of the Capital Area Recreation Association complex.
The biggest change comes in the size of the tournament field, which has expanded from eight to 10 teams with the addition of a new eight-team Zone 5 from southernmost York County.
And while the field is expanded, it remains elite, as just 10 of the 49 Legion teams statewide will get the chance to win a title and advance to the Northeast Regional in Bristol, Conn., Aug. 14-18.
Just three teams are back from a year ago, Nova Seafood of Portland, Bessey Motors of South Paris and Fayette-Staples of Saco.
Defending champion Monmouth and runner-up Bangor both were ousted during their zone tournaments.
New teams in the 2008 field include Zone 1 champion Hampden and runner-up Steamboat Petroleum of Waldo County.
For Hampden, this marks the first trip to the states in its five-year history, while Steamboat Petroleum is back for the first time since 1997.
That Hampden was seeded fifth and Steamboat Petroleum fourth in the Zone 1 tournament reflected the depth of that zone, and similar scenarios played out in the other zones.
Of the teams in the state tournament, only two, Bessey Motors in Zone 3 and Nova Seafood in Zone 4, won regular-season zone titles — and neither won its zone tournament.
Just one No. 2 seed statewide, Gayton Post of Lewiston, has reached the states, while three No. 3s (Gardiner, Fayette-Staples of Saco and Libby-Mitchell of Scarborough), two No. 4s (Hampden and Waterville), one No. 5 (Steamboat Petroleum) and a No. 7 (Kennebunk) round out the 10-team field.
Both Zone 1 entries are riding hot streaks, with Hampden (15-10 overall) winning eight of its last nine games and Steamboat Petroleum (16-9) the winner of nine of its last 12.
They will play teams from central Maine-based Zone 2 in Saturday’ s opening round.
Steamboat Petroleum will match up at 10 a.m. on Morton Field against Zone 2 champion Gardiner (16-7), which defeated Waterville 13-3 in Monday’ s zone championship game. Gardiner, which includes primarily players from reigning Class B state champion Gardiner High School, features the state’ s 2008 Mr. Baseball Kyle Stilphen, who is primarily a shortstop but pitched an 11-strikeout three hitter in the Zone 2 final.
Hampden will make its state tourney debut at 12:30 p.m. Saturday on McGuire Field against Zone 2 runner-up Waterville, which outlasted top-seeded Augusta 10-7 late Tuesday night to earn its berth.
The tournament opens on McGuire Field at 9:30 a.m. with Zone 4 runner-up Nova Seafood against Zone 5 champion Fayette-Staples. Nova Seafood, consisting of players from 2008 Class A state champion Deering High School, finished first in the Zone 4 regular-season standings with an 18-2 record but was upended by Libby-Mitchell 4-3 in the zone championship game. Nova rebounded the next day to defeat Andrews Post of Portland in a win-or-go-home game to return to the states.
Fayette-Staples, featuring players from Thornton Academy, finished third in the final Zone 5 regular-season standings with a 13-9 record but powered through the playoffs to win the zone title after reaching the states as the Zone 4 runner-up last summer.
Bessey Motors (16-6-1) returns as the Zone 3 runner-up after clinching the first state tourney berth from that zone by winning the regular-season title. Bessey will face Zone 4 champion Libby-Mitchell at 1 p.m. on Morton Field. Libby-Mitchell, which includes players from Scarborough and Bonny Eagle high schools, finished third in its zone during the regular season but went undefeated in tournament play, an effort capped off by its upset of Nova Seafood.
In another change brought about by the expanded field, two teams will have to play a second game on opening day.
One of those teams will be the Steamboat Petroleum-Gardiner winner, which will advance to a 3:30 p.m. matchup against Zone 3 champion Gayton Post of Lewiston. Gayton (17-6) finished second in the Zone 3 regular-season standings but defeated Bessey Motors 11-4 in the zone tournament final.
The last team to make its debut at this year’ s tournament is also the surprise of the field. Zone 5 runner-up Kennebunk finished seventh in the zone during the regular season with a 7-15 record but rallied through postseason play to clinch a state tournament berth with four straight victories after an opening loss.